Felicia Carson, Leslie Clark, Lisa Burton, and Tabatha Knight stand outdoors
Felicia Carson, Leslie Clark, Lisa Burton, and Tabatha Knight. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Lisa Burton was at her desk in the Metropolitan Police Department’s internal affairs division in 2019 while two officers “snickered” at her. Burton, who is Black, could see that the officers, both White men, were amused by a T-shirt.

She decided at first to ignore them, but eventually, curiosity won. A few days later, Burton says she unfolded the shirt on her co-worker’s desk. It said: “MAKE PENNSYLVANIA GREAT AGAIN” and “BUILD A WALL,” with an outline of the state of Pennsylvania and a dotted line around greater Philadelphia apparently representing the “wall.”

“When I saw the shirt, and what it said, there were two other agents in the office,” Burton tells City Paper. “I said, ‘You got to be kidding me,’ and showed them. And they just shook their heads.”

IAD is responsible for investigating MPD officers’ alleged misconduct and serious and fatal uses of force. Recent reports from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson‘s office found serious flaws in MPD’s internal investigations into police killings.

Burton took a picture with her phone and put the shirt back. She was offended by the shirt’s Trumpy rhetoric and its racist implications. Philadelphia’s Black population declined from 2010 to 2020, according to recent U.S. Census numbers, but Black people still make up a larger percentage of the city’s population than White people. And it’s growing more diverse. Hispanic and Asian residents drove Philadelphia’s population growth in the past decade.

In that moment, the snickering started to make sense. Burton is from Philadelphia, and she says one of the two officers, John Hendrick, is from Scranton, Pennsylvania, at northeastern Pennsylvania city that is overwhelmingly White.

“Why would you build a wall around Philadelphia?” Burton says. “Because that’s where all the Black people are.”

Burton decided not to report the shirt right away. A few months prior, she’d reported Hendrick for telling a racist joke in the office.

Burton says Hendrick had teased another colleague by saying they “had more excuses than a Black man going to jail.” Later, Burton says Hendrick added that the “actual joke,” is “you have more excuses than a n—r going to jail.” He didn’t say the offensive slur because, Burton recalls him saying, “I don’t think I should say that word.”

When Burton first saw the shirt, she was still dealing with the internal fallout from reporting Hendrick for the racist joke, and as far as she could tell, nothing happened as a result of her speaking up.

“I was wasting my breath,” she says.

Burton finally came forward shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, first to the president and vice president of the National Association of Government Employees, Harvey Cannon and Ignacio Alleyne (Burton is a civilian employee at MPD). City Paper‘s efforts to contact Cannon and Alleyne were unsuccessful.

Burton says the union leaders brought the issue to MPD Chief Robert Contee, who ordered an investigation. MPD’s general orders prohibit officers from displaying political material at work. The problem, Burton says, is that Hendrick worked in MPD’s internal affairs division, which means that he was investigated by his own colleagues.

“We’re talking about the same set of dudes investigating each other over and over,” Burton says.

MPD spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck says via email that the joke and the shirt were previously investigated and resolved. He declined to comment further because Burton’s claims are a part of a lawsuit that she and another internal affairs employee filed alleging race and sex discrimination in IAD. MPD does not comment on active litigation. But, Sternbeck says via email, MPD “is committed to treating all members fairly and equitably throughout our organization.”

Burton adds that internal investigators initially wanted to charge her with “stealing” because she briefly took the shirt from a co-worker’s desk to take the picture. Contee interceded, she says, and she was transferred out of IAD.

Burton says she spoke with Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen about the t-shirt and other issues she’s witnessed in IAD. Allen says in an email from a spokesperson that he intends to ask about this issue and others during MPD’s annual oversight hearing, which is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 17.

“I want to hear directly from Chief Contee on a number of concerning workplace allegations at tomorrow’s oversight hearing,” Allen says via email. “But MPD employees displaying this shirt would certainly be unacceptable–doubly so for officers charged with internal accountability.”

Along with the allegations in multiple lawsuits filed by current and former MPD employees, the t-shirt incident prevents MPD from building trust with communities, Allen says.

“If not immediately called out and addressed, it’s the same as telling the public this behavior is tolerated or even encouraged. It’s long past time for direct answers about what MPD is actually doing to change its culture and practices for the better,” he says.  

As for Hendrick, he’s now assigned to MPD’s Force Investigations Team within IAD. The team is responsible for investigating officers’ serious and fatal uses of force. In 2021, MPD officers shot 16 people, killing five of them, according to the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, media reports, and the Washington Post‘s database of fatal police shootings. All five of the fatal shootings in D.C. were of Black men.

Correction: We previously reported that MPD shot 12 people in 2021. In fact, officers shot 16 people, five fatally.